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The Microtonal Wave

There's a new kid on the music scene, "microtonal music." Well, maybe not so new, and perhaps not on your block, but clearly in the ascendancy.

Not a musical style per se (e.g., rock, jazz, classical), microtonal music results from a philosophical aesthetic of musical intervals. To begin with some brief definitions: An interval is the musical feel of the space (difference in pitch) between two notes. An octave is the interval between a note and a second note with half or twice its frequency—think of the first two notes of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do), the basis for the major and minor keys in Western music, progresses through seven notes over the course of an octave. A semitone (essentially, half the in-terval between two consecutive tones on the diatonic scale) is the interval formed by the closest adjacent keys on a keyboard. A microtone is any of a number of notes between notes.

Western music composed during most of the last 500 years has largely used different temperaments ("tamperaments" with the sounds found in nature), which opened the way to modulating from key to key, but has rarely used microtones. Schools regularly teach that nature's very precise series of overtones—notes with frequency ratios of 1/2, 1/3, etc.—is "out-of-tune," as if pointing out an egregious flaw in nature. Until recently it was thought impossible to play microtones on traditional instruments (they fall between the keys on a conventionally-tuned piano, for instance), or simply to sing them.

This is not to say that we can't—or don't—hear microtones, even in the West. I will never forget that exquisite evening in 1979 when the proverbial light bulb lit above my head. I had discovered the archetypal example of commercial microtonality—the Oldsmobile car horn. Taking my bassoon in hand, I played aloud the Oldsmobile car horn tune (D up to F quartersharp, down to A and back to F quartersharp). The tune was immediately recognizable to everyone standing around me, including Finnish and Japanese students who knew it from old movies.

Meantime, the microtonal tunings of many world musics are passports to experiencing different cultures. In Höömeï overtone singing, mastered by Tibetans, Mongols, and virtuosic Tuvans (Whole Earth No. 90), individuals produce three or four notes simultaneously, forming further combination tones. Thai musicians practice seven-tone equal temperament. So, too, do the Puna of Panama, the Are'are of the North Solomon Islands, and numerous tribes in Cameroon and throughout Central Africa. Egypt uses quartertones, Iran practices "dasgah" (immutable tetrachords—the interval of the first two notes of "Here Comes the Bride"—with idiosyncratic innards). India favors raga, using seven-limit (compared with conventional Western five-limit) harmonics.

Though new intonational hierarchy is now being celebrated in global festivals, intrepid independents were always in evidence. Eric Dolphy asked, "If birds can sing quartertones, why shouldn't we play them?" Egyptian superstar Ou Kalsoum revolutionized the Arab world, first as a female star, and finally as the awesome master of intricacies of Arabic scales called "maqamat." Folk artist Odetta lovingly fashions and shapes her intervals of emotional power, each in an intuitively intended nook. Sinead O'Connor splits intervalic hairs when she sings "Nothing compares to you" through the use of syntonic comma (or 11/600ths of an octave) between the notes "to" and "you."

All styles are game for microtonal application. The track of the blues makes use of "blue" notes which are organic-sounding pitches off the diatomic scale. Much of rock (e.g., Jimi Hendrix) is microtonal, as is some of jazz and a slice of classical, and it runs through hip-hop. The punch of Appala-chian harmonies, the bald-faced seeming impossibility of Inuit throatsinging, and the great female choruses of Bulgaria all stir the microtonal broth.

Microtonal ventures began in pre-history when Neolithic people first began to get a sense of control of nature's schemata. Playing via mathematical calculations with musical intervals, some imagined to be beyond human hearing, was a favorite pastime of the Sumerians. The first professional microtonal meet occurred on the island of Salamis when Thracian harpist Timotheus ventured to the cave hideaway of Euripides, whose reputation for composing with quartertone genera was widespread.

Microtonal music has often existed at the edge of mainstream musical sensibilities. Timotheus sought out Euripides after being banished by a Spartan king for "polluting" music by adding extra strings to his harp. Nicolo Vincentino's Renaissance-period archichembalo (a harpsichord with an extended range, on which he played 31 distinct pitches per octave) caused a societal riot in Venice. Bach's tunings inspired debates in Berlin immediately after his death.

In the New World, Mexican Julian Carrillo coined the term "microtonal" in his 1895 monograph "Sonido Trece," which featured a ninety-six tones-per-octave scale. American pioneer Harry Partch (1900-1974) had a dream that led to an original music conceived as a monophonic fabric and culminated in a scale with forty-three unevenly spaced tones per octave. To achieve his dreams, he designed exquisite and beautiful instruments capable of playing his music (see Genesis of a Music, p. 74).

My own compositions are poly-microtonal. I prefer to mix and match tunings in each composition. Another interest of mine is to connect natural phenomena to intervalic treatment. In my string quartet, "Cosmic Rays," the actual splitting of a photographed cosmic ray is invoked by "splitting" and rotating a musical motif through a display of virtuosic sliding tones, sometimes traveling opposite directions simultaneously on two or three strings.

Electronic tuners, now augmented by computers, have made the production of microtonal music possible for anyone, but technology is still a toy when it comes to the mass of microtonal music accomplishments.

Though synthesizers are naturals for microtonal sound production, any instrument can play microtonally. Mine is the bassoon, once thought to be quite lame regarding its ability to play in tune. It can do anything thanks to its large range, overtone-rich tone, open tone holes, and relative plethora of keys. It can do anything, but so can a cello, a flute, a trumpet (albeit with one extra piston), or even a piano, when it is retuned accordingly, or redesigned with microtonal intentions. And, of course, one can sing microtonally.

The lesson here is that with an infinite number of pitch points on the musical continuum, relationships between intervals sensible to the composer are eminently transferable to the audience. Everything is intervals, after all; matter is intervalic on the sub-atomic scale. There is space between all things, and that is what creates meaning.